Medium 9781912567003

A Journey Abroad

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The poems in this book were written between 1944 and 1946 whilst the author was serving with the Friends Ambulance Unit, first in London hospitals and then in northwest Europe following the Allied advance. He remained in Germany during the aftermath of the war working with displaced persons, refugees, and civilians.Roland J. Harris (1919-1969) became a teacher and pioneering educational researcher, and author of textbooks and articles on the teaching of English grammar and poetry. On the Schools Council he was instrumental in raising the school-leaving age to sixteen. Together with his wife Martha Harris he conceived and started the Schools Counselling course at the Tavistock Clinic. Later he taught psycholinguistics at Brunel University.A Journey Abroad (his own title) is accompanied by photographs that he took at the time. These complex poems constitute a historical record, an analysis of pacifist convictions, a deeply introspective autobiographical narrative, and above all, a celebration of life.

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A Theme for Poetry


‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ – Yeats

Shells fall, springs waste, for poetry
No theme, passives, here-such-as-we
Who bear; famine and war act free.

Famine has no throat for arrows;
Action suffers overthrows
Of vague and intangible foes:

Nobody, nothing, things which deflate
The tragic hero and elate –
No enemy so grand as Fate,

But cloak in night, a paper plot
A pattern traced with what is not
To be encompassed, save as nought.

After a week the breast is dry
That should have suckled prophecy;
Is this no theme for tragedy?

Waking's an actless, frozen stream;
Sleep has nightmares, but no dream:
Is not this a tragic theme?

Friend fails friend; the shy maid leers;
The just man stoops, the brave man fears;
Is not this a theme for tears?

For those that die, are more that grieve;
Never suffering is passive,
Suffering that has to live.

Suffering that cannot die
Weeps between the earth and sky;
Friend, you shall have no peace, nor I


Parting with my Father at Dovey Junction


There go the lines diverging:
His train a Turner
In sunny mist along
The widening estuary,
With tinge of furnace-flame;

It is said, to Bangor,
Towyn, Criccieth, converging
On small towns by the sea,
Northwards along
The widening estuary.

And this is the strong
London, Paris, city
On city of fame.
Then farewell estuary!

Now we, who never seemed to love,1
Part for prosaic places far apart,
And query sickly in our inward heart,
Where Criccieth is for him,
And London Town for me.

1 His father, William Harris, was a pianist and violinist


The Lark


The farmer


The only bird which does not fly

as a black silhouette,

but is chameleon to light,

the lark,

is a white song in a white sky,

known only by the ariette

and shadow of its sound,

a faint radiance of song,

a colourless music like the October sun,

a poplar leaf turning in silver-grey on the
  edge of form,

something gone far but which you can almost

the sea in the pearl-drift spiral found beyond
  eye of proof,

the sky-sunken star screened by filmy distance
  and veils of openness;

its nest also hidden in open

insignificance, of grass –

a bodyguard even for important people.

Coming one day upon

such naïve privacy where the plough must pass,

my farmer,

a lark-like practical man

of shy inward song

preserved that island oasis

under its branching palms of song

green in the brown fertile desert,


Comedy of Old Iron


Sometimes I feel like an empty tin

Dumped at the derelict end of town,

Who should be shining shield to rich food within,

Not unlabelled, anonymous, ploughed-field brown.

Sometimes I think: if they only would –

Who left me here to be licked by the rat –

Make guns or bullets of me so that

I could destroy the evil and the good.

Or even fill me with grease and butter

Full as a bean to make lean burghers fat,

So that their ponderous bowels could utter

Grumbling contentment and generate.

But I lie here with a rough-toothed grin,

Void as a field which will never be sown,

Destroyer nor preserver, rusty as sin,

Holder of rain which has fallen down.

Somewhere in the world my lost fulfilment

Moves like a crab that has lost its shell,

Unable to go forward, and hesitant

Before the ironic over-sensible.


On Going to the War


Question my motives, you will find
A cluster of rooks’ nests emptily
Swaying in tall bare trees;
The reasons of my going
Are blank walls of houses
That lean on the harbour;
Reiterated waves that thunder
On the vague shore;
The promptings of my departure
Nothing revealing
Nor convincing.

Amaze my startled thought
With questioning forays,
A silly beetle caught
In an electric maze,
That hither-thither scurries
On midnight boards and cupboards
Naught escaping
For to the dazed defeated
The strong enemy
Seems always merciless and mercenary.

Only accept, as lovers must,
Omitting to account
For action of inaction,
And answer only
As I answer
Only and for ever

Lest the axe ring in my woods1
This wild December,
Sweeping rootless away.

Achieving thus, with calm of mind,2
A union beyond explanation,
Such as music and poetry give us
With all who love, or have loved splendid things;
In the passion of this relation
Never spent,
Confiding always.


The Angel in the Rain


Beside the curb I saw him,
Bedraggled Mons ribbon (pledge
Of his bright days and colours fast)1
Clinging to damp black coat;
Palsied tin mug before him;
And dirty muffled throat;
Tentative stick tapping
The gutter's edge;
Limp placard looped from ragged string
To tell his story;
Cheap tin tray,
Sorrily heaped with ‘England's Glory’,
To keep unalterable law away
And light the fag-end of his great assay.

I saw him sideways stand
With ineffectual wand;
Before the heeled, behind the wheeled world

passed –

Lucifer! his fallen wings about him,
And stooping, like an old, old man,
And blind, as one who has been face to face with


1. Campaign medal for service in World War I, universally handed out


Pictures in a Hospital



October 1944


The Night Phone

Phone's bell
showers ice
cold drops
from night's
pool it
shakes out
night in
our eyes.
like rain
in gusts
of pain
spits, flits
is known.

So, in the night of day
rarely, rarely,
and we obey.


Sleeping Quarters

From the bed I see
My jacket, shirt, and above
My empty suitcase;
Shelved opposite,
His jacket, case, clothes
Emptily facing mine,
Hold silent and polite
Conversation of vacancies;
Coats hang, puis ca,
Puis la, comme le vent varie,
There is no third between.

So much the same –
An empty resemblance
Only in the room's sleep:

Tomorrow, as with fulfilment ever,
One to the ward,
One to the theatre –
The morning fills and parts them.



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